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Nikita Kucherov powers Lightning to 5-1 win over Senators

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Kucherov’s second-period hat trick leads team to 5-1 victory.

NHL: Calgary Flames at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

From the moment Ben Bishop was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, Andrei Vasilevskiy was going to be in the spotlight the moment the puck dropped on Monday night’s game against the Ottawa Senators. His fellow Russian, Nikita Kucherov, took that spotlight and one-timed it into the net as the Lightning beat the Ottawa Senators, 5-1, at Amalie Arena.

Kucherov kept his recent hot streak going as he had a four-point night against the Senators that included a natural hat trick in the second period. All three of his goals came on the power play as the Lightning used their special teams to take down the Senators and pick up two points in the standings.

With Peter Budaj on the bench wearing number 31 and sporting a glorious mountain-man beard looking on instead of his good friend and hugging buddy Ben Bishop, Vasilevskiy made 39 saves in the win, ending a five-game personal losing streak.

The only other lineup change was Adam Erne replacing Brian Boyle on Vlad Namestnikov’s line. Recently signed Greg McKegg and call-up Yanni Gourde were healthy scratches.

First Period

Jonathan Drouin returned to the lineup as well, after missing the game against Calgary with the flu. He showed why he is so important to the Lightning offense as he had a great chance in front of the net that Mike Condon stopped. The Triplets were generating chances as well, as Tyler Johnson se Kucherov up for a one-timer that Condon scrambled to stop.

It was the Lightning’s inability to get the puck out of the zone that led to the first Ottawa goal. Vasilevskiy stayed in the net as a deflected puck tricked deep into the Lightning zone. They weren’t able to control it, and Kucherov ended up tripping a Senator. Forty-seven seconds later Brayden Coburn tapped Zack Smith in the face with his stick and the Senators had a 5-on-3. Kyle Turris snuck a one-timer past Vasilevskiy and Ottawa had the early lead.

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With the Lightning still a little on their heels from the penalty kill, the Senators almost doubled their lead. Cody Ceci had the initial shot that the Lightning goaltender blockered right to Chris Kelly. Kelly fired it toward the empty net only to see a certain goal swallowed up by the right leg pad of a fully stretched-out Vasilevskiy.

The Lightning must have felt the fans in Section 128 deserved to see more of the game as they spent much of the first half of the period pinned back in their defensive zone. Outshot 13-4 in the first half of the game, Vasilevskiy had to be on his game. The Senators spent 10 minutes shredding the Lightning in the neutral zone and setting up quality scoring chances.

Tampa Bay managed to tilt the ice back to even slightly, an excellent slap pass from Victor Hedman found Kucherov wide open in the right circle, but the Lightning’s leading scorer hooked the shot wide of the net. Erne had a clean shot from the point that forced Condon to make a nice save.

Second Period

Perhaps the Senators wore themselves out in the first period — after all they had played the night before in Sunrise. Whatever happened to them between periods, Tampa clearly was the faster team in the second. An they used their speed to quickly turn a deficit to a lead.

The first goal came from Drouin racing down the ice to create havoc behind the net. He rushed Condon into making a bad pass, then old-man Alex Killorn forced the Senator defender to pass it to the middle of the ice where it found Point. The rookie calmly wristed it over Condon for the game-tying goal.

After Ottawa picked up an extra penalty in a skirmish between Coburn and Mark Borowiecki, the Lightning attacked the Senators’ zone with speed. After a smooth entry into the zone, Drouin dropped a no-look pass to Hedman, who guided the puck across the ice to Kucherov and the Russian did not hook this one-timer wide as he snapped it past Condon for his 24th goal of the season.

That play worked so well, the Lightning gave it another go. This time it was Drouin sliding the puck through a seam to Kucherov and his one-timer once again found the back of the net. Not only were the Lightning scoring on the 8th-best penalty kill in the league, they were dominating it by keeping the puck in the zone for long stretches of time.

Kucherov capped off the natural hat trick with Zach Smith in the penalty box after a dubious roughing call. Drouin carried the puck down low, passed it to Hedman who passed it cross-ice to Kucherov. The puck was on a platter for the Kucherov one-timer and he blasted it over Condon’s shoulder. At this point, the Lightning power play was basically Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. Everyone on the ice knes what play was coming yet they are powerless to stop it.

Third Period

The Lightning needed to play strong for 20 more minutes to finish off the game and pick up some ground in the playoff race. They had to walk the fine line between playing smart and not retreating into a shell. With the three-goal lead, Jon Cooper had the benefit of being able to roll all four of his lines and keep their shifts short.

They didn’t sit back. Kucherov came close to picking up his fourth goal as he tried a wraparound and the puck slid just wide of the far post. A few minutes later, Tyler Johnson set him up on a 2-on-1, Kucherov blasted a one-timer from between the circles that Condon took right in the chest protector.

While the Senators kept picking up shots, they weren’t of the threatening quality. The 15 shots Vasilevskiy faced in the first period were from dangerous areas. As the game wore on, more and more of the shots came from the point or from the boards, much easier for the big netminder to stop.

The Triplets kept the foot on the gas as Kucherov rang one off the post. The puck came out to Coburn, who celebrated his 32nd birthday by pinging the puck off the correct side of the crossbar and into the net. Kucherov picked up an assist for his fourth point of the night.

Ottawa’s frustration came to a boiling point after Cedric Paquette clipped Tommy Wingels with about 7 minutes to go in the game. Paquette squared off briefly with former Bolt Mike Blunden while Gabriel Dumont fired some jabs at Chris Wideman. The Lightning easily killed off the ensuing shorthanded situation (Paquette had a tripping penalty to go along with his roughing penalties) as the Senators looked like a team that just wanted the game to end so they could get back home after a long road trip.

Game Notes

Chris Kontos is the only other member of the Lightning to score 3 power play goals in a period and he did it against Chicago in Tampa Bay’s inaugural game...Kyle Turris’ goal was his 300th career NHL point...Point has six goals since returning from his hand injury...Drouin’s 3 assists were a regular season career high. He also had 3 assists in Game 5 against the Red Wings in last season’s playoff matchup.

Giveaway alert

Now for the good part. Thanks to our friends at Upper Deck, we have some gifts to give away to our readers. In order to be eligible to win, please leave a valid comment below. By valid we mean have a point about something. Either the game, the season, the recent trades, something other than “FIRST!” or “GIVE ME FREE STUFF!”

All commenters will be entered into a random drawing, and we’ll contact the winner! If you don’t win, don’t get mad, we have plenty to give away for the rest of the season and possibly into the offseason.

All entries must be received by 10 am EST Tuesday, Feb. 28. So comment away!